Building a Product Culture

Building a Product Culture with Marc Abraham

Marc Abraham is currently the Chief Product Officer at Settled and is the Global ProductTank Coordinator at Mind the Product.

Having started his career as a Corporate Lawyer, Marc worked in digital delivery before making the move into Product Management.

His Product Management career spans an array of different industries and brands including the likes of 7digital, Notonthehighstreet and World First.

How did you enter the world of product management?

Halfway through being a lawyer I realised I was a bit late to the party, so it prompted me to do an MBA in the UK. Again, halfway through I realised, if I want to use my MBA I can’t go back into law, so I stayed in professional services but worked a lot more on the marketing and business development side of things. That got me interested in digital.

The question was, how do I move into digital? I did a lot of pro bono work, working particularly with start-ups but also with established companies. That paid off, eventually, when I got my first role as a digital project manager working in an agency, but I found that to be quite limiting in some respects. There’s nothing wrong with project management, per se, but I always felt I was missing an element of creativity because it’s quite constrained. You work on a set budget, on a set scope, and you have to deliver. That’s what you do and then you move on to the next thing. That got me excited about product management (we’re talking about 2010 here, so a few years back!).

What makes a good product manager?

Let’s focus on what I look for when I hire, to make it a bit more concrete.

The first thing I always look for is curiosity. That sounds really obvious, like, “Yeah, sure, people are curious”, but I want people who are interested in the product and the customer, who are happy to try things and learn continuously. So that’s a really key trait, looking at what competitors do, really trying to understand the customer, as I said. That’s the first thing I look for and it doesn’t matter whether you’re junior, senior, or have a lot of experience – I don’t care. I want someone who can demonstrate to me that they’re curious.

The other key thing that makes a good product manager is being able to make hard decisions. There’s a whole debate within the product management world about, “Are we mini CEOs, or are we not?” I don’t care so much about that debate. For me, a product manager is ultimately accountable for the product performance, what gets built and what doesn’t get built. So you have to be able to make tough calls when it comes to trade-off decisions: Shall we go for feature A versus feature B? Should we make this product in the first place? So, I look for someone who’s decisive, who can make those calls, someone who’s entrepreneurial, happy to try things, happy to be iterative and just experiment.

I would say those three things – curiosity, being entrepreneurial, and being decisive – are the three core components I personally always look out for.

How do you see product management evolving in the future?

At the moment, I feel product management is still a fairly new discipline in the UK and some other places, particularly in Europe. It’s a different story when you speak to my peers in San Francisco. But I think we’re going down the same path where it will become a lot more established. I can see it when I speak to my peers in San Francisco, for instance, where they’re an essential part of the business. In the UK, in certain cases, because product management as a discipline is still quite new, you typically get people who are effectively acting more as project managers. They will do a lot of execution-type stuff, they’ll take a requirement from another part of the business and they’ll just run with it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you look at good product management – going back to your earlier question – I expect that product managers will be much more like leaders in their businesses. Not at the very minute, in lots of cases, but that’s how I see that discipline evolving, where they’ll be driving the business strategy from a product perspective, they’ll be making really core decisions as to which market we should be focusing on as a business, and which one we shouldn’t focus on, which customer segment is going to drive the business forward and which one isn’t. As businesses and organisations become more product-centric, as a result product managers will give much more at the forefront of what their businesses do.

What is a product culture to you?

Product culture, to me, is a couple of things. The main thing, I would say, is that it begins and ends with the customer. It’s really customer-centric. It’s no good saying, “We’re all about creating a great product or service” if you don’t take into account your customers. Truly understanding and testing things with customers on an ongoing basis, challenging your own assumptions and hypotheses – that makes a product-centric culture, for me. It’s thinking about products on one side, business and customer needs on the other side, and how we can marry the two up.

In the past and to this very day, actually, it’s a mix. I’ve got this toolkit of things that you can do to start instilling a product culture and what I call a “product mindset”. It’s typically starting with simple things. You don’t need to have a whole five days off to talk about your product strategy and suddenly the business has become a product centric company overnight. It’s something that I call “product retrospectives”. A monthly product retrospective is all about how our product is performing, going back to what you released a month ago, let’s say a particular feature. How has that been doing? Has it been living up to expectations? Maybe it has failed. Why has it failed? What are customers saying it about it? How are they using it? That’s the kind of thing I do for the whole business. It’s not just for stakeholders who’ve been involved in the product development lifecycle, but anyone who wants to come. It’s completely voluntary but it’s a nice way to spread the word about what we’re doing as product managers in an informal, simple kind of way. So that’s a very simple thing that you can do, almost as of tomorrow, effectively!

Another key thing is bringing customers into the building. There is nothing more powerful, in my humble opinion, than speaking to customers and engaging with customers on a regular basis. If you can’t bring them into the building, do it remotely! There are great tools out there that you can use – remote user testing, for instance. Again, this is a fairly simple thing that you can start doing, almost straight away, to be more customer-centric, to really understand what customers’ needs and problems are, and how to use your product.

What should companies know before moving into a product culture?

From experience there are two things, particularly with start-ups, where you’ve got a core group of people who have a really clear view of what the product should do, who the customers are – obviously, because it’s your baby and you’ve been working on it so hard for all those hours – and suddenly you get a product person in, who is going to drive that product culture. You get a lot more cooks in the kitchen. You’re going to get people who typically have an opinion and – in lots of product manager cases – quite a strong opinion. That’s what we do, I guess! You will get someone who will challenge founders or stakeholders and ask, “Why are we doing this? How do you think this is going to work? Who is this for?” i.e. questions that might not have been asked previously, or in the same kind of way. These are not, by any means, meant as showstoppers for hiring product people but it is something to be aware of. If you’re going to get more people involved in that product lifecycle and product development process, you’re going to bring more opinions to the table, more decisions, more challenges. This is not the end of the world but it is something you need to be mindful of and need to manage carefully.

If you want to get there faster, my first advice would be to get a more experienced product person. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have been a product person for the last fifteen years (I haven’t even met those people yet!), but have someone who’s done it before and will have the confidence to try a few things fairly quickly because they know it could work – things like product retrospectives – and can take the business on a journey, whether you’re a start-up or a more established business.

I find the challenge can sometimes be that you’re working with a founder or a founder-team, who are understandably very close to the product or service that you’re selling. It’s almost like you’re taking their baby away from them as a product person, so one of the suggestions I’d give to reduce that initial fear of “this new product person coming in to take my baby away” is to build up that relationship with the CEO, COO, or whomever in that founder team you’re working closely with, and take them on that journey and make sure it feels like – and is – a joint exercise. Then it’s not just, “I’m a product manager coming in as the rock star, I’m going to tell you what’s wrong with your product, what you should be doing or should not be doing”, but you really work very closely together to take away that fear. Make sure that there’s an opportunity not just for the founder but for everyone in the business – because it’s likely to be a small setup anyway – to have input in the product development and product decisions. So that’s the key suggestion I would give there.

Now, if you flip that and look at more established businesses, you’ve already got teams in place who might be a bit fearful of a product manager or product team coming in. They might think, “what does that need for my role?”, or, “Do I become redundant?” Spend a lot of time educating them – that would be my suggestion. Not in a pedantic kind of way, like “I’m going to sit you down and tell you what product management is”, but have two-way conversations. I’ve got good experience of doing that, where you explain what product management is, and just as importantly what it is not, and use that as a vehicle, almost, to establish what the roles and responsibilities are, and the boundaries, vis-à-vis those in-house, existing teams that might have been in the business for however many years and are very well established. For instance, I can take myself as an example at World First. It is a very successful business and has been around for thirteen years, and grown rapidly, but they miss that kind of product function. I was the first product manager to join the business. Because of my experience and because of having done a similar kind of role previously, with similar challenges, I could take the wider business on a journey.

What tips would you give to someone looking to go into product management?

The first thing is, whatever your existing role is – if you’re a business analyst or a UX designer, project manager – look at what you can do that’s related to developing products, whether it’s speaking to customers, doing opportunity assessments, looking at other markets, looking at competition, or coming up with a product vision. Even if it’s not asked of you in your day job, when you do speak to companies who are looking to hire product people, you can give examples of “Well, in my company this is a product vision I thought of”, “This is our product strategy that I put together”, or, “These are the customers I spoke to about our product and this is what I learned and fed back into the business”. It’s really about showing that interest in being a product person. Forget about not having been a product manager for fifteen years, or necessarily ticking all the boxes. Show that interest in the customer, in your business, in your competition, in your wider market. That’s really important if you want to transfer into product management.

The other thing I mentioned before which I always recommend, particularly if you think about the many start-ups that we’ve got here in the UK and London particularly, is working on a pro bono basis. I’m sure you’ve got lots of good skills that you can use – product-related or maybe other areas – to say, “You know what, I can see you’re starting a start-up with a few people. Product management is the missing bit and I’m happy to spend a few evenings a week, or weekends, to help you get your product up to scratch, to look at your customer experience, to help you speak to customers.” This is particularly useful if that’s the kind of thing you can’t necessarily do in your day job.

Finally – and obviously you would expect me to say this – the thing to do is to come to events like Product Tank, but I know there are loads of other events like it in London, out there where you get great opportunities to meet with other product people, to see what they do, what their challenges are, and learn from talking to them.

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